U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Lawyer Won't Get Share of S.S. Central America's Sunken Treasure

Well, I wish I'd known this earlier. Apparently, you can make a career as a treasure hunter, even in these modern times. Though it's not easy, as the Columbus-America Discovery Group learned when they went into receivership after collecting sunken treasure from the S.S. Central America. Their lawyer -- and I suppose lawyers are a type of treasure hunter as well -- moved to claim some of that gold himself as a reward for his aid in "the continuing salvage of the sunken" treasure fleet.

Sadly, the Fourth Circuit didn't find attorney Richard Robol's contribution to be as worthy as he claimed. His "contribution to the recovery" was largely what was required from him by law and his professional duties -- it was not the voluntary assistance that could afford him salvage rights, the Court found.

30,000 Pounds of Gold in Davey Jones' Locker

In 1857, while traveling from San Francisco to New York, the S.S. Central America sank in a hurricane off the South Carolina coast. It took with it the lives of 420 passengers and crew, along with 30,000 pounds of California Gold Rush gold. The sudden loss of so much gold helped trigger the Panic of 1857, the first world-wide economic crisis.

The S.S. Central America, and its gold, lay undiscovered on the ocean floor until the 80's, when it was found by the crafty treasure hunter -- and later fugitive on the lam -- Tommy Thompson. Thompson, director and founder of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, won salvage rights to recovery the gold. For ten years, Robol acted as Columbus-America's lawyer and was fairly involved in the recovery effort. That is, until things... went under.

After Thompson ran off with some of the gold, leaving many investors unpaid, the salvage companies were placed into receivership. Robol turned over his files and materials to the receiver and encouraged others at Columbus-America to do the same. He then filed an in rem admiralty petition for part of the salvage rights.

Those Aren't Voluntary Actions

Under admiralty law, a salvage award, entitling one to a percentage of the value of salvaged goods, is available to those who have provided voluntary assistance that proved useful in the salvage operation. That aid must be voluntary, the Fourth Circuit emphasized.

Robol claimed that his actions were voluntary, since he returned documents over which he had a lein. "Modern standards of professional conduction," the Fourth wrote, preclude that claim -- Robol had an affirmative duty to return documents whether or not their are outstanding fees, costs, or even liens. That "ethical mandate" displaces Robol's lien claims and makes his actions mandatory, not voluntary.

That means no salvage award for Robol, though he probably won't be left without recompense. He still has an outstanding claim for over $2 million in attorneys fees.

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